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Expert: Good medicine meets bad behavior

CNN's Soledad O'Brien, left, spoke to Steve Pasierb and Linda Surks about teen prescription drug abuse.



1 in 5 teens -- or about 4.5 million -- tried prescription painkillers to get high.
Drugs include Vicodin or OxyContin.
40 percent say prescription meds "much safer" than illegal drugs.
31 percent say "nothing wrong" with prescription drug use.
29 percent think prescription painkillers non-addictive.
22 percent smoked, down from 23 percent last year and 42 percent in 1998.
31 percent drank in the last month, down from 33 percent last year and 48 percent in 1998.



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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America warns that prescription drug abuse among teens is increasingly common. About 1 in 5 teens has tried a prescription painkiller such as Vicodin or Oxycontin to get high, the study found, and many parents aren't picking up on the warning signs.

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke with Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership, and with Linda Surks, whose 19-year-old son, Jason, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2003:

O'BRIEN: Steve, let's begin with you, if we can. I think parents, when they worry about their kids and drugs, you think pot, you think cocaine, you think ecstasy. How big of a problem, realistically, is prescription drug abuse?

STEVE PASIERB, PARTNERSHIP FOR A DRUG-FREE AMERICA: Well what we know from the studies, we have 4.5 million kids who have intentionally abused a prescription drug to get high and about 2.4 million kids who have abused over-the-counter cough medicine. So it is a fairly significant behavior, right behind marijuana and inhalants, and above all of the other forms of illegal drug use.

O'BRIEN: And in fact, you have done a study. And let me throw up the study so people can see it. You looked at 7,300 teenagers from grades 7 to 12. And those numbers you were just giving us from the study extrapolated out, marijuana 8.6 million, inhalants 4.7 million teens, prescription medicines 4.5 million teenagers, cough medicine 2.4 million teenagers, crack/cocaine 2.4 million teenagers. I think is -- that -- those are pretty shocking when you look at that bar graph. Is it just, essentially, Steve, the ease of access, frankly?

PASIERB: That's a very big part of it. It's a combination of ease of access, but very, very weak risk behavior in attitudes among teenagers. They don't understand that intentionally abusing these products is as risky as using illicit street drugs.

So we're really going after the parents you mentioned earlier, helping them understand there's a new form of substance abuse out there. Your kid may not be doing it, but he or she is at risk. And you've got to educate yourself, then communicate that out to your kid and safeguard these medications in your home. They're wonderfully beneficial and they're in all of our homes, you just need to understand this is an issue of bad behavior meeting good medicine.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk to Linda now. Linda, as we mentioned, your son, Jason, died back in 2003. He was just 19 years old. Did you have any idea that he was abusing prescription drugs?

LINDA SURKS, MOTHER OF OVERDOSE VICTIM: No, we actually had no idea at all. And the fact of the matter is, I work in substance abuse prevention, so I should have had some clues, but he was very knowledgeable and a bit cagey and kept it from us completely.

O'BRIEN: What prescription drugs were he abusing and what happened?

SURKS: Well, he was abusing Xanax, OxyContin, Vicodin, a number of different prescriptions. He was a pre-pharmacy major. And I think that there was some level of professional curiosity, perhaps, and a sense of invincibility that Jason just always had. He just started abusing the drugs about six months prior to his death and really didn't get a chance to have a second chance.

O'BRIEN: Steve, you know, it is interesting when Linda talks about her teenage son and she says sense of invincibility. I don't know any teenager who doesn't have that. But it's also curious when she says she's got a history on drug prevention, I mean you know that's sort of what she does, and even she didn't see the red flags. Do you think parents are just clueless on this issue?

PASIERB: We have probably one of the most drug-experienced generations of parents in history, but this is a kind of behavior that didn't exist 10 or 20 years ago. So, for most parents, prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse is not on their radar screens. So even people in our field, let alone average parents at home just trying to raise a healthy family, this is a key issue. And this is why we're trying to alert families to the fact that there are products in your own home your kid may be intentionally abusing.

O'BRIEN: Linda, let me ask you another question about Jason. Where was he getting drugs from? Was he getting -- was he stealing them from you?

SURKS: No, he wasn't. But we believe that -- I know that he did order some drugs over the Internet. There was a Mexican pharmacy online that he ordered Xanax from and had set up a renewal subscription for him, so every month they would renew the order.

Beyond that, we know that these drugs are sold on the streets, as well. They can be gotten in anybody's medicine cabinet. And he was knowledgeable, somewhat knowledgeable about the substances because he actually worked in a pharmacy part time.

O'BRIEN: Brutal for your family. I'm so sorry, but really, I think, good information for other parents to be very aware of.

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